Despina Khatun

Theodora Megale Komnene (Greek: Θεοδώρα Μεγάλη Κομνηνή), also known as Despina Khatun (Persian: دسپینا خاتون‎; from the Greek title Despoina and Mongol and Türk title Khatun, both meaning "Lady, princess, queen"), was the daughter of John IV of Trebizond, who married the Aq Qoyunlu ruler Uzun Hasan in 1458. She became the mother of Martha (Halima) who became the mother of first Safavid king, Shah Ismail I.

Despina Khatun
BornAfter 1438[1]
DiedAfter 1474[1]
St. George's church, Diyarbakir[1]
Uzun Hassan (m. 1458)
FatherJohn IV of Trebizond

Some older writers refer to her as "Catherine". Charles Diehl has shown that it was based on DuCange's misunderstanding of the Mongol title "Khatun" as "Catherine". [2]

John IV agreed to the marriage only if his daughter was allowed to continue her Orthodox Christian religion, a condition which Uzun Hasan agreed upon. Despina was famous for her extreme beauty amongst the Greek women. She was accompanied by a group of Orthodox Christian priests and was allowed to build Orthodox churches in Iran. Uzun Hasan strengthened his anti-Ottoman alliance by this marriage and gained the support of many Greek, Armenian and Georgians.[3]

Marriage between Christians and Muslim rulers, although uncommon, was not unprecedented. Speros Vryonis provides several examples from the Sultanate of the Seljuk Turks, beginning with Kilij Arslan II.[4] A later example is Michael VIII Palaiologos marrying off his illegitimate daughters Euphrosyne and Maria to Nogai Khan and Abaqa Khan respectively. Previous Emperors of Trebizond had married off his female relatives, most notably Alexios III, during whose reign two of his sisters and two of his daughters were married to rulers of neighboring Muslim states.[5]

In Western Europe, Theodora inspired the myth of the "Princess of Trebizond", a fixture of tales of damsels in distress as well as of a possible grand Crusade against the Ottoman Turks. The legend inspired several artists, including Pisanello and Jacques Offenbach.

Early lifeEdit

Theodora was acknowledged as the daughter of John IV, but there is some mystery about who her mother was: no primary source names her mother, and John IV had two wives, Bagrationi, a daughter of King Alexander I,[6] and the daughter of a Turkish sultan, whom John married sometime before November 1437.[7] Because the first allusion to Theodora is dated to February 1451, when the Byzantine diplomat George Sphrantzes came to Trebizond seeking a bride for his Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos and we do not know how old she was at the time, either woman could be her mother.[8] In 1458 she was married to Uzun Hasan, Khan of the Turkoman tribe of Aq Qoyunlu; her uncle David gave her away at the marriage.[9]

Political marriageEdit

At the time of marriage, the Empire of her father John faced a serious threat. Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II in 1453. In 1456, Mehmet ordered his governor Chetir, to capture Trebizond; the attack failed, but John was forced to pay tribute to Mehmet to prevent further attacks.[10] Mehmet gradually annexed the last Palaiologian possessions in the Morea, completing the task with the conquest of Mistra on 29 May 1460.[11] An alliance with the powerful Aq Qoyunlu tribe, who were the Ottomans' most powerful rival, appeared more than beneficial.

Trebziond and the Aq Qoyunlu had a history of co-operation, for they had concluded a political marriage in the past: Theodora's great-great aunt had married Qara Osman, emir of the Aq Qoyunlu.[12] Theodora was famed for her beauty. An unknown Venetian traveller wrote, "it was common opinion that there was at that time no woman of greater beauty; and throughout all Persia the fame of her great beauty and supreme charm spread."[13] Uzun Hassan eagerly agreed to be the protector of Trebizond, as well as making other concessions, in return for Theodora's hand. News of Theodora as the Princess of Trebizond who was married to the powerful Uzun Hassan spread to the West, and helped to foster stories of Princess of Trebizond.

However this alliance failed to help John's successor, his brother David. Mehmed II, the Ottoman ruler, marched on the imperial city of Trebizond in 1461. Uzun Hassan initially supported the Trapuzentines, but he was persuaded by the Ottomans to abandon Trebizond. After securing the eastern border, Mehmed attacked Trebizond, which surrendered 15 August 1461, ending the polity.

Late lifeEdit

After the fall of Trebizond, David was put in house arrest. In 1463, David was discovered attempting to send a secret letter to Theodora, which gave Mehmed II the needed excuse to get rid of David once and for all. He considered this letter a conspiracy to recapture the land of Trebizond with the help of Aq Qoyunlu and had David, his sons and his nephew executed on 1 November 1463.[14]

Despite the death of her uncle, Theodora continued to influence her husband in foreign affairs. According to Anthony Bryer, she was the moving force behind diplomatic overtures to Venice in 1465-1466, and to Stephen III of Moldavia in 1474.[15] When the Venetian diplomat Caterino Zeno came to the court of Uzun Hassan in 1473, one of the first persons he met was Theodora. He revealed to the woman that they were related, and on the basis of this she provided him unparalleled access to her and Uzun Hassan during his stay.[16] Franz Babinger states she was present at the Battle of Erzincan, where she urged her husband to pursue the defeated army of Mehmed II in order to utterly destroy him.[17]

After the death of Uzun Hassan in 1478, not much is known about her. She was buried at St. Georges Church in Diyarbakr, where her tomb was shown to an Italian visitor in 1507. However the structure was damaged in 1883 and no longer can be seen.[15]


By Uzun Hasan, Theodora had several children:[15]

  • Yakub, who is not the son of Uzun Hasan who succeeded him as ruler of the Aq Qoyunlu; Bryer believes he was killed by another wife of Uzun Hasan soon after his death in 1478;
  • Marta (also called Halima), who married Shaykh Haydar in 1471/1472; Martha became the mother of first Safavid king, Shah Ismail I, who established Shia Islam as the state religion.
  • Two other daughters. These Caterino Zeno met in Damascus, where they conversed in Pontic Greek.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d Bierbrier 1997, p. 233.
  2. ^ Diehl (1913). "Catherine on Theodora?". Byzantinische Zeitschrift. 22: 88f – via De Gruyter.
  3. ^ Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History. Volume 5 (1350-1500),BRILL, Jun 21, 2013.
  4. ^ Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California, 1971), pp. 227f
  5. ^ Discussed in Elizabeth Zachariadou, "Trebizond and the Turks (1352-1402)", Archeion Pontou, 35 (1979), pp. 333-358.
  6. ^ William Miller, Trebizond: The last Greek Empire of the Byzantine Era: 1204-1461, 1926 (Chicago: Argonaut, 1969), pp. 81f
  7. ^ A. Vasiliev, "Tero Tafur, a Spanish Traveler of the Fifteenth Century and His Visit to Constantinople, Trebizond, and Italy," Byzantion, 7 (1932), p. 98
  8. ^ Byzantine aristocratic practice at the time favored marriages as early as 13 years, so Theodora could have been born as late as 1439.
  9. ^ Chalcocondyles, 9.70; translated by Anthony Kaldellis, The Histories (Cambridge: Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2014), vol. 2 p. 353
  10. ^ Miller, Trebizond, pp. 87f
  11. ^ Donald M. Nicol, The Last Centuries of Byzantium, second edition (Cambridge: University Press, 1972), pp. 396-398.
  12. ^ Donald M. Nicol, The Byzantine family of Kantakouzenos (Cantacuzenus) ca. 1100-1460: a genealogical and prosopographical study (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, 1969), pp. 145f
  13. ^ Cited in Miller, Trebizond, pp. 88f
  14. ^ Cited in Miller, Trebizond, pp. 108f
  15. ^ a b c Anthony Bryer, "Greeks and Türkmens: The Pontic Exception", Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 29 (1975), n. 146
  16. ^ Caterino Zeno, "Travels in Persia", A Narrative of Italian Travels in Persia, in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, translated and edited by Charles Grey, (London: Hakluyt Society, 1873), pp. 13f
  17. ^ Babinger, Mehmed the Conqueror and his Time, translated by Ralph Manheim (Princeton: University Press, 1978), p. 314


  • Bierbrier, M.L. (1997). "The Descendants of Theodora Comnena of Trebizond". The Genealogist. Picton Press. 11 (2).